By what it is not
We often come to know what leadership is by first seeing it modeled poorly, even horribly. And then when the real thing shows up, it shines a light on what has been missing all along.
This is true on the job as it is within our faith communities. When we see great leadership at work and on display, all of the sudden everything we thought we knew to be “good” leadership seems a pale comparison.
But is this always the case? If we had the chance to be taught by great leadership, would we always notice? And if we had the privilege of being good leaders ourselves, would we necessarily take that opportunity? Or would we settle for less in ourselves.
As a Christian who aims to follow the way of life that Jesus taught and lived, this leadership dilemma is one that is always present. Not because I got it all down, but because I don’t. When I revisit and ponder Jesus’ life and teaching on leadership in the sacred text, I am routinely confronted by my own need to practice a better path of leadership. I am also reminded that what is often called “leadership” in our world today, including what is said in the broader American Christian church community, is all too often contrary to Jesus and his teaching.
Jesus on leading
Jesus once said this about leadership, “You know how it is in the pagan nations…Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life as a ransom for many.”
According to Jesus, the common way that leaders lead in our world is through power plays. They “lord it over” and “boss the rest around” who work for them or serve with them. Leaders who feel the need to control others and boss them around are typically not the kind that allow for mutual collaboration and individual creativity. They are often prone to authoritarianism and extreme micromanaging.
In Jesus day, the “pagans” were the Roman authorities. The high king of Rome, Caesar, demanded ultimate allegiance. This is more than simple idolatry. The Romans were known for demonstrating their power through violent control over their subjects, including both their own citizens and the nations they oppressed. If you messed with the Romans (even if just by appearance), you just might end up on a cross.
But they were not the only ones in power during Jesus’ day. The religious leaders of his nation also held a high degree of power and influence, even if under the watchful eye of Rome. They dictated what was morally acceptable and shamed those who did not follow suite. In their scrupulous devotion to their traditions, they found themselves blinded to just how much their leadership had sidelined and ignored the very people they were “called” to lead. In some respects, the consequence of their religious zeal even promoted and moved forward injustices against their own people…
Like the way they despised those in poverty, shunned those they deemed “sinners,” justified the abuse of the elderly, and neglected the sick.
We have more in common with them today that we’d like to admit.
And it’s not just “the pagans” or “godless” or those we might typically deem immoral. Well-known and cherished leaders within our churches in America have backed up a political leader who has led our nation to do these very things: demanded ultimate allegiance, bossed people around, fired those who asked too many questions, justified and even promoted public behaviors that put our elderly and vulnerable in harms way of a deadly virus, made life very comfortable for the rich while ignoring the financial strain for those in the middle to low income bracket, including those in poverty (some of which lost their jobs and/or forced into poverty outside of their choice due to a worldwide pandemic). What’s worse is that Jesus and the Christian faith have gotten attached to these kinds of behaviors because many of those who support him identify as Christians.
But as Jesus taught, the way we lead should be remarkably different than the common way of the world. To be a truly great leader is to lead self-sacrificially and consider the least of these…just as Jesus did. For whatever we have done toward the least of these, he said, we have done it to him.
If we claim to follow him, then life is not just about us. It’s not just about you. It’s about others.
Let’s consider others in this holiday season and realign ourselves to the greatest of leaders, the Servant of servants, Jesus himself.
Bible passages to consider: Mark 10:35-45.
Quoted passages in this blog post are taken from The Kingdom New Testament by New Testament scholar-theologian N.T. Wright.